Black Venus
Barthélemy Prieur

Paris
ca. 1600

Bronze
Height 30 cm

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The so-called Black Venus, once thought to be the work of an Italian or Netherlandish master, is now widely attributed to Barthélemy Prieur. After training in Paris or Fontainebleau, Prieur went to Italy and became court sculptor in Turin; later he was appointed court sculptor to Henri IV of France (1553–1610). His works include large sculptures, most of them funerary monuments, but above all small bronze works, of which the “Maid and Cavalier” group and “Jumping Horse” are likewise in the possession of the Liebieghaus.

The viewer is struck by the Negroid facial features of the woman looking at herself in a mirror. There are many representations of beautiful young women gazing at their reflections, but neither in antiquity nor in the visual arts around 1600 are there precedents for the choice of a black woman to exemplify female beauty. An explanation for this choice may be found in Mannerist poems, for instance a few of the Shakespearean sonnets: a black slave-woman is sometimes depicted as a mistress for whose favour her master has to plead. Conceived as a work to be viewed from all sides, the Black Venus embodies the Mannerist ideal of sculpture around 1600.

Prieur’s sculptures are characterized by soft, silky-smooth surfaces that merge imperceptibly. At the same time, the different views that can be obtained of the Black Venus from different angles show that the artist had seen works by Giovanni Bologna (1529–1608) and also knew the theoretical writings of such scholars as Benvenuto Cellini (1500–1571). Cellini had insisted that a sculpture must have several different but equally beautiful aspects.